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As climate change makes disasters worse, philanthropy needs to think long term

The good news: Many people consistently donate when a catastrophic event hits. The not-so-good: Our attention spans are short–and recovery efforts aren’t getting the philanthropic support they need to cover their ongoing work.

As climate change makes disasters worse, philanthropy needs to think long term
[Photo: Rex Hambly/BLM/Flickr]

In 2018 alone, the United States suffered 14 natural disasters, each of which caused more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage. The final total: $91 billion overall, although not all of the devastation has been officially tallied. That includes deaths and destruction from hurricanes Michael and Florence, and the California wildfires. It also makes last year the fourth worse year in recorded history in terms of financial fallout.

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All of this sounds like a lot until you consider the year prior actually reset the record completely. In 2017, the U.S. experienced 16 tragic “billion-dollar-plus” events with hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma all contributing heavily to $306 billion in total losses.

The bottom line is that erratic weather patterns and other crises of climate change pose a very real and persistent danger to society. But for disaster response groups, that reality brings lots of new questions. How many will continue donating to disaster aid? How much do they typically give, and is that repeatable? Does all that cut into other charity work?

A new report from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Candid, and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy provides some answers: On average, about 30% U.S. households made disaster-related donations in 2017 and 2018. That rate actually stayed about the same despite back-to-back years of mega-trouble. It was 31% in 2017, and 29% in 2018.

[Photo: Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder/SC National Guard/Flickr]

That’s not to say that the same people just gave again, but many did. About one in five U.S. households were repeat givers to emergency relief. And these contributions generally don’t cut into giving to other cause funds: 78% of people reported no change in other charitable behaviors, while 12% said they actually increased giving elsewhere.

The results are based on a nationally representative survey of about 1,200 U.S. households. On average, the typical household gave at or a little above $80 both years. Individual givers in the U.S. contributed an estimated $10 billion collectively, which complements other state, federal, corporate, and foundation contributions, alongside pre-existing nonprofit operations. “That’s enormous,” says Grace Sato, the knowledge services manager at Candid. “Having that picture rounds out how money is getting allocated, [so] we can start to think about how we encourage people to give in thoughtful, responsive, and long-term ways.”

The report notes that such giving is often reflexive, a knee-jerk reaction to the overwhelming scale of the tragedy. It can be spurred by things like strong news coverage, or the fact that many people might already have ties to the affected region.

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However, these funds dry up quickly. In 2017, just 2% of disaster response donors continued to give toward disasters that occurred the previous year. In 2018, just 5% gave to disasters that occurred in 2017, while about 3% gave to events that happened before that. “We know that philanthropic giving tends to spike within the first two months following a major catastrophic disaster. And then that funding drops off precipitously,” says Regine Webster, vice president at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

For nonprofits still working in these areas, that brings a new question without an immediate answer: “How do organizations that work in the aftermath of a disaster provide more pathways to engage a community of supporters over a longer-term period?” asks Una Osili, the associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “Because we know that the needs associated with a disaster are more long term, but the giving seems to be over the first phase and not necessarily continued into the rebuilding and recovery phases.”

Webster says one immediate solution could be for nonprofits to start considering the “arc of needs” that might arise in areas before they get hit. If you can build up disaster mitigation strategies in at-risk areas ahead of events, that resilience could shorten recovery. At the same time, it may be possible to get more households to become contributors the old-fashioned way. “One thing that we probed this time that has not been examined as much is why households may not have participated in disaster giving,” says Osili. “We found that one of the primary reasons was actually that they were not directly asked, suggesting that there is still an opportunity to engage more households in disaster giving.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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